Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In Case You Ever Wondered How an Arranged Marriage Worked...

The Reluctant Wedding

While I was growing up my father was as prosperous as a righteous man in this world—that is to say, he had about as much money as a Jew has pigs. That was not how he began life, for my father's father was the richest man in his town, being the only Jew permit¬ted to supply the local Russian fortress with scrap metal, which he transported up the Vistula in his own fleet of barges.

Consequently, Shloime Zalman, my father, was raised in such princely comfort that, when he had to go to cheder, d short distance away, he was driven in a coach drawn by two horses. But since man, as we know, is incomplete until male and female are j oined together, this made it only natural that at fourteen my father should one day without warning find himself betrothed to Rachel, daughter of Reb Shmuel Schlossberg, a ship's chandler and lumberman in nearby Novydvar, who herself had just attained the ripe age of thirteen.

The arrangements were of course made directly between the parents. After all, what did children know about a serious business like married life? The decision, in fact, was to hold the wedding that same year, before the two principals aged any further and possibly got ideas of their own.

Never, of course, did it enter my dear grandparents' heads that the way they raised their son might have left him insufficiently prepared to cope with future hardships, not to mention early marriage.

Fortunately, Reb Shmuel had committed himself not only to a generous dowry, but also to provide food and shelter for husband and wife "in perpetuity." So, as you can see, there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

Ten days before the appointed time for the wedding, the bride's entourage came gliding down the Vistula on their own ship, entertained by a Russian orchestra of (it was said) no less than sixty-four pieces, and a conductor from Vienna. They were met at the dock by the groom's family and, led by the band like an arriving circus or a military parade, the procession made its way to the marketplace. The shock waves from all this commotion not only jolted our own sleepy community, but shook up all the neigh¬boring towns as well.

In accordance with tradition, the wedding was accompanied by a seven-day feast for the poor. At every meal sacks full of coins were distributed, not only by the groom's father, but separately by his mother as well, who like Abraham's wife, was known as "Our Mother Sarah," for she gave not only with a full hand, but also with a full heart.

Like my father, Rachel, the bride, also had known nothing whatever about these plans for her future, until people had sud¬denly descended upon her and fitted her for new clothes. What excitement, to be dressed so much better than all her girl friends! Once she learned, however, that she was to be married, she be¬came intensely curious to know who her groom would be. But, being a properly modest girl, she was ashamed to ask. And since she didn't ask, nobody bothered to tell her. Why tell a child about such thing. Once under the chupah, she'd have time enough to find out.

But now, as the time came to lead the bride under the canopy, she suddenly balked. (Now, if such a thing happened in our day, it would be easy enough to imagine some cause. Perhaps the groom, after having sworn eternal love to her, had been found kissing another girl in some dark corner. Or, having brought his betrothed home from the theater, had been seen at an ice cream parlor with another, or things of that sort. But in those days, of course such occurrences were completely unheard of. And besides, the bride and groom didn't even know each other. So how did she know she wouldn't like him?) After great difficulty, they discovered what was the matter. Rachel wasn't in the mood to go out into the street because it was drizzling outside, and she was afraid of getting spots on her beautiful new silk dress.

The way my father's father told it, he had trouble with his candidate, too. Shloime Zalman absolutely did not want to be married that day. He, too, wanted to know why they couldn't wait a few days until the weather cleared up. They finally had to shout at him that this whole affair wasn't any of his business, he had nothing to say about it, that he was still a little snotnose of a boy, and when his elders told him to go, his job was not to argue but to go.

After a good deal of aggravation in both houses, the ceremony finally did take place as scheduled, and for seven days things were doing, as they say, "on tables and benches." Afterwards, the carpet of white linen on which the bride and groom walked from their homes to the synagogue was given to the poor, who used it to make shirts for themselves. This signified that the festivities were over.

My mother's parents now prepared to return home on their private ship, taking with them the groom, to be eternally provided for according to contract—not only himself and his bride, but also their children and children's children. In return for which all my father had to do was study Torah and live with his wife.

At this point, fresh complications arose. The new husband, who had meanwhile turned fifteen, burst into tears. He didn't want to go away with strangers. He wanted to stay home with his friends. When the Maratecks came aboard to say goodbye to their daughter-in-law, she became bashful and hid in a barrel. The result was that my father's mother had to go along until the boy accus¬tomed himself to his new situation. She said, "What can you do? After all, he's only a child. . . ."

But even with his mother there, each day, when the Schloss¬berg family sat down to dinner, my father did everything imagina¬ble to avoid sitting next to his wife. It was said of them that "their love burned like a wet rag."

My mother was equally reluctant to abandon her childhood. Often, her husband would come home from the house of study to find her playing in the yard. Hearing his approach, she would run hastily into the house, leaving her womanly head covering in the sand.

Time passed. Gradually Shloime Zalman was able to live with his wife without having his mother around. The young pair matured, grew to love each other, and had children of their own, including me. But, as we know, while we live in exile, Jewish wealth is as durable as smoke. Despite the marriage contract which guaranteed my father "sustenance in perpetuity," the Schlossberg fortunes took a sharp turn for the worse, and my father quite suddenly found himself obliged to provide not only for his growing family, but for his in-laws as well.

In later years my parents would point to their own lives as proof that true love comes only after marriage. In fact, they believed this so firmly that they tried not less than seventeen times to arrange matches for me. Finally, at the age of twenty-seven, I put a stop to negotiations for an "heiress" with red hair and a temper, and married the girl who, back in Warsaw, had saved me from being shot.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this posting. It is being shared at my Facebook wall/profile whatever its called with my 250 approximately friends.